Filling a gap in one of the nation’s largest weather forecasting blind spots, a new weather station installed at the Old Fort Lewis campus in southwestern La Plata County is now transmitting real-time data.
“We don’t have a whole lot (of weather information) on that side of the county, so it will definitely help fill in some blanks,” said Tom McNamara, La Plata County emergency coordinator. “A lot of our job revolves around natural disasters, which are oftentimes weather-related, so that’s going to fall into something we can use.”
Completed in September, the weather station is part of Texas Tech University’s “West Texas Mesonet” network of 100 stations – mostly concentrated on Texas’ Panhandle Plains – that began in 2000.
Yet a connection between Fort Lewis College physics professor Charlie Hakes and a staff member at Texas Tech ultimately led to discussions about installing a weather station on the college’s sprawling 6,200-acre property, about 16 miles southwest of Durango.
“Their study is to make better weather models of remote places where a lot of people are still just guessing,” said Hakes, who is also director of the Fort Lewis Observatory. “And Durango is now their most remote location.”
Crews spent about a month erecting the new weather station, which stands about 33 feet tall on the plateau above the offices of the Southwest Conservation Corp. The $23,000 station was financed in large part by Texas Tech, but also received state and federal funding, as well as endowments from wind energy companies.
The station now streams 28 different parameters – including temperature, wind speed and direction, relative humidity and precipitation – to the West Texas Mesonet website every five minutes.
“It’s tough to know what’s going on (with the weather) in your area,” said Wes Burgett, operations manager for the West Texas Mesonet. “So we’re really anxious to see some of the data come back.”
The Four Corners has long been known as a sort of “blind spot” when it comes to weather and radar modeling, as major hubs in Albuquerque, Flagstaff and Grand Junction take in data at elevations too high to accurately hone in on places like Durango.
“The radar coming out of Grand Junction is pretty high above our head here, so it doesn’t see a lot of the lower-level weather going on,” McNamara said.
“Especially, anything below mountain tops. There’s a lot that’s missed from the radar, which is typically the primary source for current conditions. As a result, we have to rely more on secondary weather systems out there.”
Indeed, by piece-mealing stations in remote, isolated places like Hesperus, forecasters can rely on that data to create a more complete picture of the region’s weather, said Dennis Phillips, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
“The more data we have, the better we can make our forecasts,” Phillips said. “Observations are really what drive everything, so accurate wind, temperature, precipitation forecasts in one spot is awesome. It’s almost invaluable.”
The only official NOAA weather station is located by the Durango-La Plata County Airport, yet McNamara said other agency stations around the region help filter in more on-the-ground information, which is used to help predict wildfires and avalanches, as well as other extreme natural events.
Yet, the station at the Old Fort Lewis campus also has some more specialized purposes, Texas Tech’s Burgett said.
Researchers will look at the data, at the behest of stakeholders, to help farmers and ranchers in the area better time the growing season, namely hay production, by using data to find trends with temperature, humidity and wind.
The real-time data will also assist Mesa Verde Helitak pilots, who operate out of the Old Fort Lewis campus, know the wind speed and direction when they come in to land.
And, Burgett said, Texas Tech University, a leading institute on wind energy research, will be paying close attention to the possibilities of production in southwestern La Plata County.
So how long will the new weather station – the project’s 99th – stick around?
“As long as FLC wants it there,” Burgett said.